For the ultimate family vacation, explore Arizona’s state parks and trails
If you want to experience a different kind of family vacation this summer, consider taking a road trip to one of Arizona’s many state parks and trails, which offer diverse sightseeing attractions and adventures for the entire gang. To help celebrate Arizona State Parks and Trails 60th anniversary, we spotlight five parks to inspire your travel itinerary.
Patagonia Lake State Park | Southern Arizona
Tucked away in the rolling hills of southeastern Arizona is Patagonia Lake State Park on State Route 82, seven miles south of the town of Patagonia. The park was established in 1975 and is a water recreation haven with a campground, beach, picnic area, a creek trail, boat ramps and a marina. Picnicking, camping, swimming and boating are popular activities at Patagonia Lake. But while modern-day watercraft is the preferred method of getting around, the spirit of another iconic transport system lies beneath the surface: the tracks of the New Mexico/Arizona railroad.
Fishing also is plentiful at the 2.5-mile long, 265-acre, man-made lake, where anglers can cast their nets from the shore or boat to reel in largemouth bass, flathead catfish, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill, red ear, green ear sunfish and rainbow trout.
For those interested in hiking, there’s a half-mile trail that leads to Sonoita Creek, a popular birding area (bird tours are scheduled twice a week). Equestrian trails also can be accessed through the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area. And don’t forget the annual Mariachi Festival, which is held at Patagonia Lake State Park every May.
Picacho Peak State Park | Southern Arizona
Don’t worry about missing the exit for Picacho Peak State Park along Interstate 10 in southern Arizona. The 1,500-foot towering peak will be your first clue you’ve hit the historical landmark. And if it’s springtime, the density of Mexican gold poppies that blanket the unique geological landscape, which is part of a volcanic flow, is another sign you’ve reached your destination.
Dedicated a state park in 1963, the area was once occupied by the Hohokams and has been used as landmark for visitors since prehistoric times. Picacho Peak’s most famous historic event occurred on April 15, 1862, when Confederate and Union scouting parties met in the Battle of Picacho Pass during the Civil War, the largest Civil War clash to take place in Arizona.
During the spring, the park becomes a fictional battleground as history buffs watch authentic reenactments of the skirmish, as well as the New Mexico battles of Glorieta and Val Verde as part of the annual Civil Wars in the Southwest event, which draws thousands of spectators who camp in the park’s RV areas. The surrounding scenic desert vistas and elevation changes also make Picacho Peak State Park a popular spot for year-round hiking, with several trails that vary from easy to difficult.
Yuma Territorial Prison State Park | Southwestern Arizona
When the Yuma Territorial Prison, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Lower Colorado River, opened in 1876 for business, some of the first occupants actually helped build their own cell blocks. That is just one of the many quirky facts surrounding Arizona’s third state park. Several remnants of the original prison, which was built with a $25,000 budget approved by the state legislature in 1875, still remain on the site of the historical state park.
The last of the prisoners have long since moved on, but the property has been home to many other local and national residents. At one point, Yuma Territorial Prison served as the location for the Yuma High School and the Yuma County Hospital. And while the Guard Tower was used as a spotting site for World War II, it now acts as an observation point to view the breathtaking scenery and as a tranquil place for yoga classes, held from November to March.
Another unique aspect of the prison is the adjacent Yuma East Wetlands, a 1,400-acre restoration project that includes a 2.5-mile hiking trail along the Colorado River. Families interested in helping to restore the natural habit area as volunteers can contact the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park | Central Arizona
As the largest and oldest botanical garden in Arizona, Boyce Thompson Arboretum is an award-winning, state park treasure. Originally founded in 1924 by mining magnate Colonel William Boyce Thompson as a desert plant research facility and “living museum,” the arboretum became part of the University of Arizona in 1965 and joined the Arizona State Park system in 1976.
The arboretum sits on 323 acres of deeded property in the Sonoran Desert beneath Picketpost Mountain, along Queen Creek and adjacent to Tonto National Forest near the historic copper mining town of Superior. A nature lover’s paradise, Boyce Thompson Arboretum contains 3,200 different desert plants from around the world with a living collection of more than 800 cacti and 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians who are attracted to the arboretum’s irrigated gardens and protected grounds.
The visitor experience includes towering trees, sheer mountain cliffs, a stream-side forest, panoramic vistas, several natural wildlife habitats, a desert lake, a hidden canyon, as well as themed gardens such as the Hummingbird-Butterfly Garden, Demonstration Garden and Children’s Garden. In addition, the arboretum is an outdoor educational oasis and offers specially guided tours to children and adults on a regular basis.
Riordan Mansion State Park | Northern Arizona
Glamour isn’t a term typically used to describe state parks and their facilities. But the eponymous duplex building that defines Riordan Mansion State Park exemplifies historic, gracious living.
The 40-room mansion, which is technically two almost identical rooms joined by a rendezvous room, occupies 13,000 square feet of living area and servants quarters that sit on top of Kinlichi Knoll in Flagstaff. The Riordan Mansion was built in 1904 by brothers Michael and Timothy Riordan, members of a prominent family that owned Arizona Lumber and Timber Company and who were instrumental in developing Flagstaff and Northern Arizona.
Dedicated in 1983, the rustic mansion features log-slab siding, volcanic stone arches and hand-split wooden shingles and was designed by the creator of Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel, Charles Whittlesey. Visitors can take a personally-guided, 60-minute interpretative tour of the mansion that features information about the Riordan family history and details about the Arts and Crafts-style architecture and furnishings that represent an impressive collection of Craftsman-era items made by Edison, Stickley, Ellis and Steinway.
The historic home museum includes a visitor center and gift shop located in the mansion’s former automotive garage.
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial
Opened to the public Nov. 30, 2016, the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park is a deeply personal and moving tribute to 19 fallen “hotshot” fire fighters, an elite crew trained to fight wilderness fires, who perished June 30, 2013 as they battled a raging inferno outside the gold-mining village of Yarnell, Arizona.
The park entrance is located two miles south of Yarnell on Highway 89A (White Spar) and is essentially a 7-mile round-trip hiking trail, which immortalizes the fallen every 600 feet with 19 granite plaques set into rocks that share a photo and story about the fire fighters. The trail includes an observation deck to view the fatality site 400 feet below and a path to follow the last steps of the fallen. At the site, a circle of 19 gabion baskets united by chains represent the hotshots’ eternal union.
Families of the fallen fire fighters, along with community members from Prescott and Yarnell, were instrumental in the development of the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park.
Story by Sally J. Clasen
Photography by Mark Lipczynski